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Man Against the Mob

[1]1,316  words

Many of an contemporary “alternative Right” orientation blame Christianity for bequeathing the dogma of egalitarianism to the modern world. Such people claim that the attempted abolition of natural hierarchies and destructively “leveling” momentum of democracy and campaigns of enforced “equality” derive from the Christian doctrine that all human souls are equal before God, a notion which finds its most famous formulation in the words of St. Paul from his New Testament epistle to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is neither slave nor free, Gentile nor Jew, male nor female.”

I have written elsewhere on this subject (www.alternativeright.com/main/blogs/untimely-observations/christianity-and-western-man [2]); here it will suffice to observe that in the two millennia since Jesus Christ walked the earth, social, gender, and racial hierarchies have, prior to the cultural revolutions of the last few decades, generally remained untouched.

William Shakespeare, Christendom’s greatest playwright, lived at a time of great intellectual ferment and cultural tumult, yet even in his time both Protestant and Catholic alike affirmed the prudence of continued social stratification. If all men were equal before God, this in no sense mandated any presumption of equality of title or status between individuals, cultures, races, or sexes. If the serious Christian of the Reformation era took seriously Paul’s declaration regarding the absence of distinctions between different groups of humanity, he also acknowledged the divine origin of Biblical passages commanding slaves to obey their masters and instructing wives to be subservient to their husbands.

Most of the Shakespeare canon affirms a conservative worldview, but Coriolanus (set in pre-Christian times) is unusually severe, even reactionary. Like the more famous Julius Caesar, it is devastating in its critique of “democracy” as a manifestation of mob rule. Its titular tragic hero is a man of fierce pride in his patrician status, who regards the commoners with lordly contempt. Meanwhile, the villains of Coriolanus are two crafty and devious tribunes who expertly use the hero’s uncompromising integrity against him, for their own selfish purposes and to the grave detriment of the state.

Coriolanus, usually regarded as a “minor” Shakespeare work (although it was one of T. S. Eliot’s favorites) has recently been adapted into an artful and compelling motion picture, which, though set in a startlingly modern world, nevertheless remains true to the essentially anti-modernist trappings of the text. This is surprising, since Coriolanus is undoubtedly the third most politically incorrect play of the Shakespeare canon, just behind the gleefully sexist Taming of the Shrew and the vigorously anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice. Its protagonist is a difficult and not always sympathetic man, whose sensibilities jar against our own Zeitgeist in nearly every way imaginable.

Caius Martius Coriolanus of Rome loathes the plebeian class, and isn’t afraid to say so. He almost seems eager to court their hatred, in fact. Confronting an angry mob of commoners about to riot for more bread, Martius (he hasn’t yet earned his “Coriolanus” title) snarls with vituperation from the get-go:

What would you have, you curs,
That like not peace nor war? The one affrights you;
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese. You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice
Or hailstone in the sun . . . Hang you!

As over the top and impolitic as this rant may be, it also expresses a good deal of insight and truth. The mob is fickle, inconstant, unfaithful, and easily manipulated. Coriolanus is also correct to disdain the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus for shamelessly truckling to the masses (those referred to in recent rhetoric as “the 99 percent”) for transparently demagogic ends. Coriolanus hates flattery, and deplores the greasy machinery of politics, whereby one obtains one’s goals through trickery, deceit, and unctuous, disingenuous rhetorical appeals. He much prefers the clean, brutal honesty of the battlefield.

In Act II, we see some of Coriolanus’s legendary marital exploits — indeed, he defeats a horde of invading Volscians nearly single-handedly, after most of his comrades have lost the nerve to fight. One would think that the display of such courage in defense of Rome would cover a multitude of sins in his countrymen’s eyes, that his ascension to the position of consul is all but assured. But the conniving tribunes have other plans.

Once he returns from battle, Coriolanus is urged by his fellow patricians to show off his war wounds to the multitude, and to pledge himself to their service. Coriolanus finds this notion utterly repugnant, disgraceful, and vulgar. After all, he didn’t fight so bravely in order to win the approval of the lower orders, but out of a stout conviction of personal honor and duty.

It is worth noting that Coriolanus dislikes being flattered just as much as he disdains the notion of flattering others. One striking gesture particularly calls attention to itself in this regard: while his heroic feats are being discussed in the Senate, Coriolanus gets up and briskly walks out; he finds it unseemly to sit and have others sing his praises in his presence.

Coriolanus is, surprisingly enough, a momma’s boy, and it is his mother Volumnia who eventually talks him into showing his wounds to the plebs. But being the man he is, Coriolanus cannot bring himself to engage in the custom in anything more than a half-hearted manner. The two tribunes afterwards seize upon his obvious lack of enthusiasm to talk the credulous lower orders into believing that Coriolanus not only looks down his nose at them (he does), but that he is also their mortal enemy and seeks to do them harm. In no time, a lynch mob is assembled, calling for the would-be consul’s death, or at least his banishment. In the midst of this mounting fury, Coriolanus blasts his attackers with words that I confess I have always found thoroughly rousing in a “punk rock,” Johnny Rotten-esque way:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air; I banish you!
. . . Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back
There is a world elsewhere.

Indeed, even audience members inclined to lack sympathy for the haughty and proud Coriolanus cannot help but admire the defiant fortitude and fearlessness he shows on this occasion. In the teeth of the hostile mob’s murderous braying, this warrior isn’t the least inclined to back down. What is more, he will make good on his threats: Rome will come to rue the day that it spitefully rejected him.

The new filmed version of Coriolanus captures the angry intensity of this character’s stern, strident personality, and places it in a startling new context: Rome is re-imagined as a modern Baltic state (!) in the post-Soviet era, a grim, gray, dangerous place roiling with ethnic and social upheaval, whose events unfold before ever-present TV cameras, and are subjected to endless commentary by cable news pundits.

Ralph Fiennes, who also directed, lends the character of Coriolanus a dour yet undeniably telegenic air; he is just the sort of military leader whose authoritative delivery would compel our attention if we saw him on television, regardless of whether we loved or hated his politics.

A strong supporting cast includes Gerard Butler as Volscian strongman Tullus Aufidius (who in a further, amusing Babel-like confusion of ethnicities, speaks with an über-Scottish brogue, pronouncing “twine” as “tween”), and most notably Vanessa Redgrave, who doesn’t so much portray as embody the part of Coriolanus’s gung-ho iron lady mom, Volumnia.

Coriolanus manages to stay true to the feel and substance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, including its patently “reactionary” politics, while radically revisioning the setting. It should be of interest to all critics of our fanatically egalitarian age, which all too often confuses the erasure of necessary distinctions and the leveling of natural hierarchies with the machinery of “justice.”